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Reef Killer Already In Belize

The invasion of predatory lionfish in the Caribbean region poses yet another major threat to coral reef ecosystems — a new study has found that within a short period after the entry of lionfish into an area, the survival of other reef fishes is slashed by about 80 percent.

A maroon-striped marauder with venomous spikes is rapidly multiplying in the Caribbean’s warm waters, swallowing native species, stinging divers and generally wreaking havoc on an ecologically delicate region. The red lionfish, a tropical native of the Indian and Pacific oceans that probably escaped from a Florida fish tank, is showing up everywhere – from the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola to Little Caribbean Eco reefs, the region’s prime destinations for divers.

Wherever it appears, the adaptable predator corners fish and crustaceans up to half its size with its billowy fins and sucks them down in one violent gulp. Research teams observed one lionfish eating 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes.

“This may very well become the most devastating marine invasion in history,” said Mark Hixon, an Oregon State University marine ecology expert who compared lionfish to a plague of locusts. “There is probably no way to stop the invasion completely. The threats to coral reefs all over the world were already extreme, and they now have to deal with this alien predator in the Atlantic. These fish eat many other species and they seem to eat constantly.”

Marine biologists are seeing it in every habitat: in shallow and deep reefs, off piers and beaches, and perhaps most worrisome, in mangrove thickets that are vital habitats for baby fish. Lionfish are carnivores that can eat other fish up to two-thirds their own length, while they are protected from other predators by long, poisonous spines. Other fish have learned to avoid them but in the Atlantic Ocean, native fish have never seen them before and have no recognition of danger. There, about the only thing that will eat lionfish is another lionfish – they are not only aggressive carnivores, but also cannibals.

Northern Caribbean islands have sounded the alarm, encouraging fishermen to capture lionfish and divers to report them for eradication.

One marine biologist said that he has been stung several times while rounding up lionfish – once badly. “It was so painful, it made me want to cut my own hand off,” he said. Marine officials say swimmers will be more at risk as the venomous species overtakes tropical waters along popular Caribbean beaches. Because of their natural defense mechanisms they are afraid of almost no other marine life. And the poison released by their sharp spines can cause extremely painful stings to humans – even leading to fatalities for some people with heart problems or allergic reactions. Researchers are scrambling to figure out what will eat the menacing beauties in their new Caribbean home, experimenting with predators such as sharks, moray eels – and even humans. Hungry sharks typically veer abruptly when researchers try to hand-feed them a lionfish.

“We have gotten (sharks) to successfully eat a lionfish, but it has been a lot of work. Most of our attempts with the moray eel have been unsuccessful,” said Andy Dehart of the National Aquarium in Washington.

One predator that will eat lionfish is the grouper; scientists are pinning hopes on the establishment of new ocean reserves to protect grouper from over-fishing. As lionfish colonize more territory in the Caribbean, they feed on grazing fish that keep seaweed from overwhelming coral reefs already buffeted by climate change, pollution and other environmental pressures. If we start losing these smaller reef fish as food to the lionfish … we could be in a whirlwind for bad things coming to the reef ecosystem.

First, the report… Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects, REEF, is aware of this one and is vetting final details before putting the word out. On December 11th (the day the fish was sighted) from one of Peter Hughes’ dive vessels reports arrived to Lad Akins. An instructor (who has significant experience diving in New Guinnea and knows her fish!) found the lionfish about mid-day on the 11th at a site referred to as Doc’s Place on the east side of Turneffe. The fish is approx. 8-10cm and was observed in the open at a depth of 85′. They do have photo confirmation of the fish (the director saw the images and confirmed the sighting) and are working on final details before putting the fish into the USGS NAS sightings database.

If anyone is interested REEF also has a lionfish project already planned for Belize in June (13th-20th) aboard Peter Hughes’ Sundancer liveaboard. This was originally planned to be an education/awareness project, but it looks like they might be doing more now with this early arrival.

Lad Akins
Director of Special Projects, REEF
98300 Overseas Hwy
Key Largo FL 33037
(305) 852-0030
(305) 942-7333 cell

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